What would you do if you woke up tomorrow unable to get out of bed, incapable of going to work, and faced with no timetable for a recovery? After graduating from Williams in the spring of 2009, Pei-Ru Ko went home to Taiwan determined to make a difference. In many ways she had been a classic Williams success story. She served as a Junior Advisor and member of College Council, wrote for the Record, was the President of both her neighborhood board and the Gargoyle Society, and was the founder of Storytime. Her work garnered her a variety of honors and earned her the respect of faculty and peers. She was accomplished, prepared, and ready to take on the next stage of life. As it turned out, the next stage would be far more trying and far less glamorous than the previous one.
A year after returning to Taiwan, Ko developed a rare autoimmune condition. She searched for ways of quickly conquering the illness like she had with so many obstacles at Williams. Day after day, doctor after doctor, nothing seemed to work. Her energy waned, and she was left in near-constant pain. Almost immediately she was forced to put her work projects on pause. While her friends from Williams were in the midst of creating exciting new lives, the woman who everyone expected to do so much, spent her days struggling for her life.
“Getting sick was the hardest – is the hardest – challenge I’ve ever had. It has humbled me,” Ko remarks. “I was so involved at Williams. I thought that only if I was doing that much, was I successful after Williams… Looking back the stress and internal pressure to do big things right away probably played a role in my illness.”
Sickness, however, was hardly the first challenge Ko had encountered. During the spring of her first year in Williamstown, Ko had convinced herself that she would transfer. Over a cup of coffee with Steve Klass, now VP of Student Affairs, Ko explained the reasoning behind her decision, “we talk about diversity all the time at Williams, but everyone spends their time talking about how many meetings they have and how tired they are. What a shame to have all these people together and not talk about anything deeper than that.”
Klass took the words in stride and issued a challenge, “if you think those stories are out there, why don’t you create a time and space where those deeper stories are encouraged?” Ko took those words to heart. A few weeks later, she convinced a more than a dozen students to gather on the second floor of Paresky to listen as one student told her life story. Storytime was born.
Though she had no way of knowing it at the time, that experience of bringing people together through the act of sharing stories would become a defining piece of her post-Williams life.
Ko’s illness did not offer an easy out. It took over a year for her to begin to improve at all. On a trip to the States, Ko encountered a chef who only cooked with food straight from the source, free of preservatives and chemical additives. After a few days of her cooking, she started to feel a little better. Where drug after drug had failed, real food seemed to be working. Enthused by her discovery, Ko enrolled at a culinary school in Berkeley, CA focused on therapeutic cooking.
“Half of my time was at culinary school and the other half was looking for alternative doctors to help me get better because I was still really sick. All of this time, I was telling people that I was on a sabbatical – that I was doing something else to take care of my body, but that I would get back to doing what I was supposed to.”
What she ‘was supposed to’ she assumed was something big, something meaningful, something world changing.
Instead, while many of her peers were looking towards their next promotion or planning for graduate degrees, Ko was forced to live day-to-day. “Because I didn’t have a lot of energy to give, I had to go back to the most core of who I am. For me, that is connecting – helping speakers connect with their stories and bringing those stories to listeners.”
Ko volunteered at numerous organizations, mostly food related, in the Bay Area. She met farmers and organizers, learned about the food process and the plight of small growers. “I thought I was lost because I could only see each day – I couldn’t have long-term commitments because I didn’t know where I would be. I stuck with my intuition of learning and storytelling and being genuinely me. That’s all I had left. That turned out to be a blessing.”
Over the past year, her energy has returned more and more. Though she still struggles with her illness, she has begun to have more good days than bad. Combining her love for storytelling with her newfound interest in sustainable food, Ko is in the early stages of launching a non-profit called Real Food Real Stories. Her goal is to “help sustainable food producers share their stories and talk about not just what they do, but why they do it so they can build a connection with their customers.” The hope is that “through authentic storytelling and relationship building, we can build a local food hub centered around trust, collaborative partnership and true advocacy.”
Ko is organizing “supper clubs” along a similar model to Storytime. At each event, a different farmer or food maker shares his or her story over the course of a meal. “Afterwards, participants are invited to build on the relationship whether it is by touring the farm, visiting the commercial kitchen or having the opportunity to work a day at the farmer’s market stand.” Ko hopes that the concept will catch on and become a model that she can bring back to her home country of Taiwan and eventually on to China. She is also partnering with a local non-profit to help farmers craft better marketing strategies that highlight their stories in ways that resonate with consumers.
“It’s only in the last eight months, as I’ve started to feel a little better, that I’ve realized that during [the past 4 years of sickness] I was still living, I wasn’t taking a break… All of these things happened when I wasn’t looking for them. I didn’t start Storytime because it would be good for my career. I needed it to be happy at Williams. But I ended up learning all of these skills that are important to my career. The same was true with food… At first, I really didn’t care that much about the food, but I brought my passion for story telling to that community.”
When asked about how she has changed over the last five years since graduation, Ko pointed to an increased sense of humility, which has been instrumental to her happiness. “You have to keep your bowl small. If you walk around the world, and say that you want all of this stuff – a lot of vacation, your bosses appreciation, high pay, etc. – you’re never going to be happy. We have to search for the most core elements of what we need to be happy. When you have a bowl that’s small and clearly identified, it gets filled easily. It even gets overfilled, and that’s gratitude. I didn’t realize that until I was sick… One day my friend brought me chicken soup. I thought, I don’t need all of my pain to go away. I don’t need to be totally healed, or to figure out my career and life direction all in the same day. I have this friend who cared about me and took the time to bring me soup – that’s enough to be happy.”
The idea of gratitude combined with reflection about what is truly necessary in life transfers into Ko’s broader message about life in the real world. “We’re looking for those golden steps to bring us up the career ladder, but you almost don’t realize where you’re putting your ladder – you start climbing without thinking about where you want to go. The more efficient thing is not getting started right away, it’s stumbling around a little bit and trying to figure out where you want to go. There are all sorts of different jobs and different ways of being in the world. A lot of things that our generation will need to do don’t even exist now. We need to allow ourselves to explore and stumble and try to wait on climbing.” Ko acknowledges that this approach is difficult and can be foreign to high-achieving young adults like those at Williams. “It can be really stressful – it’s been stressful for me. Classmates of mine already have PhDs or have been promoted five times… My life is not necessarily a success story. It’s a process that I’ve been on and am still on. I’m not necessarily at this amazing place where I have the answer for the rest of my life.”
Five years ago, when Ko walked across the stage on Science Quad to accept her Williams diploma, onlookers could have imagined hundreds of places she’d be today. Odds are, none of them predicted that she would be working in sustainable food – an issue she hadn’t thought much about at Williams. She may not have a graduate degree or a resume filled with promotions from prestigious companies, but when faced with adversity, forced to live from one day to the next, Ko stayed true to herself, and that has made the difference. “When you do find where you want to head, climbing the ladder isn’t a problem. You’re happy, you’re excited – you don’t worry about climbing, you just naturally do well and work hard.”
 For alums from classes before 2007, Storytime is now a cherished tradition. Every Sunday night one member of the Williams community tells his or her life story to an audience that regularly exceeds fifty students.